Conservative MPs increasingly believe that Rishi Sunak will be one of the finalists in the race for the next Tory party leader, with the contest now focusing on who is best placed to challenge the former chancellor.
On Wednesday, Tory MPs will begin the shortlisting process, whittling down the 11 contenders to two by the end of next week. The final two candidates will go forward to a vote of party members, with the winner to be announced on September 5.
Many of the candidates are seeking to appeal to the rightwing of the Tory party, with pledges of sweeping tax cuts that they hope will prove popular with MPs in the first part of the contest, but also party activists in the second phase.
One cabinet minister who is a Johnson supporter said: “Rishi is sailing towards Number 10 at the moment. The question is who can challenge or halt his momentum.”
With Sunak positioning himself on the centre ground of the party, the second place on the shortlist will probably be filled by a candidate from the right flank, who will propose a significant shift in fiscal policy with tax cuts.
Penny Mordaunt, trade minister, is in second place behind Sunak, according to the bookmaker Ladbrokes. With 22 MPs publicly backing her candidacy, she has the second-largest number of open supporters.
Although Mordaunt has a lower public profile as a junior minister of state, one influential Tory MP said she has made gains. “The fundamentals of Penny’s pitch look bad, but her numbers are good. She’s taking support from everyone,” the MP said.
Mordaunt’s pitch, combining a pro-Brexit stance with social liberalism and drawing on her experience as a Royal Navy reservist, may find appeal with different wings of the party.
One Tory official said, “If you were to draw up a caricature of the perfect leadership candidate, it would look like Penny”.
According to a new survey by ConservativeHome of party members, Mordaunt is the grassroots’ favourite to be the next prime minister, followed closely by former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch.
The other popular choice to challenge Sunak is foreign secretary Liz Truss, who launched her campaign on Monday. She is the bookmakers’ third favourite.
Although Truss was trailing Mordaunt with 15 MPs declaring support for her candidacy, she has three notable cabinet endorsements: business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey and chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke.
One ally of Truss said that having occupied five cabinet roles meant she was best placed to take on Sunak. “The question for MPs is who can beat Rishi and win the next election. For those of a certain ideology, they need a big beast who can go toe-to-toe with him on the economy, has lots of experience and has broad appeal. Liz ticks all of those boxes.”
A Tory grandee said there was “a growing feeling” within the party that the contest would boil down to Sunak versus Truss. “I imagine the Boris loyalists will pile in behind Liz to stop Rishi,” he added.
Badenoch has emerged as a surprise outsider after her pitch, focused on cultural issues, attracted praise from Tory MPs. Her chances were further boosted by the endorsement of former levelling up secretary Michael Gove.
One Badenoch ally said the leadership race was “continuity versus change” and that she embodied a fresh start.
“MPs will be thinking after 12 years in power how can Tories ensure they look fresh and new going into next election,” the person said. “Kemi has government experience, plenty of MP backers and is a credible candidate. There is a buzz about her campaign.”
Meanwhile, Sajid Javid, who quit as health secretary last week, triggering a wave of ministerial resignations, has fired coded attacks on the slick style of Sunak’s campaign.
In an effort to win favour with the right of the party, Javid vowed to cut taxes significantly, including scrapping a plan to increase corporation tax rates from 19 per cent to 25 per cent next year.
However, Javid repeatedly refused to answer questions about whether he was domiciled for tax status in a tax haven during his time as an international banker. He has said that he worked in locations including Singapore and New York and took advice from tax experts during that time.
“Whatever I’ve done in my tax affairs, I’ve been open and transparent about it,” he said. “I’ve not been non-domiciled at all in my time in public life.”
Suella Braverman, attorney-general and an ardent Brexiter, is also expected to win votes from the rightwing of the party after her early campaign garnered support among the European Research Group of pro-Brexit MPs.
Braverman’s chances were boosted by the endorsement of Steve Baker, one of the Conservative party’s most effective organisers. She has also pledged to withdraw the UK from the European Court of Human Rights, a policy popular with some activists.
Priti Patel, home secretary, was deciding whether to make a late play for the leadership on Tuesday after meeting with senior Eurosceptics.
Although the second place on the shortlist is likely to be filled by a candidate from the right, those to the left of Sunak believe others may have a chance.
Supporters of Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, insisted that if Sunak made it on to the final ballot, someone from the One Nation moderate wing of the party would emerge as his challenger.
Jeremy Hunt, the moderate former foreign secretary, is widely expected by Tory MPs to be eliminated early in the contest. His decision to name Esther McVey, a Brexiter former minister, as his designated “deputy prime minister” was met with incredulity by some.